In the annexes of history, World War I was an apocalyptic catastrophe that had unparalleled effects on modernity. Aside from the terror at global strife, the scarring realities of trench warfare came to define the war. It then becomes surprising how something as timeless as the Burberry trench coat gained traction during this time of crippling loss.
We now see the same coat sheathing celebrities and models. Its entrance in the realm of classic fashion has made the silhouette virtually inseparable from what comes to mind when we think of a trench coat. Before being spotted on A-listers and the like, the Burberry trench coat had a far grittier history, of which WWI became the defining blemish.
Throughout the 19th century, scientific advancements allowed for a wave of new fabric technology. These new fabrics were intended for professions that required long stints outdoors in poor weather, such as the military, farmers or shepherds. Each new coat, while extremely successful thanks to being the first of its kind, came with many shortcomings. Some trapped too much sweat, causing mould and odour to develop within the water-repellant cloak, while others contained rubber, and just weren’t all that comfortable.
At the time, draper Thomas Burberry realised a pronounced gap in the market he could fill. Inspired by the Hampshire shepherds, who wore waterproof lanolin-coated smocks, Burberry sought to create a breathable, weatherproof coat that was also lightweight. He began experimenting with making twill, eventually locking down on gabardine, the signature Burberry fabric made from worsted wool. The gabardine coat quickly became the choice uniform for British officers in the army.
As the war imploded, the Burberry trench coat adapted. Each detail of the coat had significance for military use, from its belted waist and flared skirt allowing for warmth without excessive length — which would trail on mud. The signature buckled belt came with D-rings for accessories and weapons. The small cape across the shoulders was intended for water to ride off during storms, and the list goes on.
There was, however, an unfortunate downside to this functionality: The trench coat made British soldiers easy to spot in the battlefield, and many became easy targets for the enemy.
Clothes maketh the man
Post-war, the Burberry trench coat was remodelled into an iconic garment for the middle and upper tiers of society. The tragedy was blocked off in favour of the prestige the garments held, being the dress of high-ranking officers. It now became an emblem of the gentlemen class, carrying well into the 20th century.
The romanticisation of the trench coat burgeoned once more during the Golden Age of Hollywood. It became the attire of spies, of romantic leading men and hard-boiled detectives. Wearing a trench coat implied a sense of intrigue and world-weariness, which many desired to embody.
In a 2015 interview with the Smithsonian magazine, design history lecturer at Central Saint Martins, Jane Tynan, shared: “[The trench coat] is nostalgic…it’s a fashion classic. It’s like blue jeans, it’s just one of the items that has become part of our vocabulary of clothing because it’s a very functional item that is also stylish. It just works.”
Burberry knows not to toy too much with a classic while indulging in the need to stay current. While the brand has released a fair handful of updates to the trench coat, you’ll still be able to find its classic silhouettes available with little change; in camel, stone grey, or black with the checkered lining peeking through.
If you would like to explore the icon in person, Burberry is celebrating the trench coat with a Singapore exhibition, titled Tales of the Trench Coat. Customers can explore the heritage and evolution of the garment at the Burberry store in ION Orchard shopping mall. Each aspect of the craft behind the trench will be highlighted — from the gabardine archives and restored coats, to having actual craftswomen from the Burberry home in Yorkshire present. If you choose to pick up something from the store, the craftswomen will be present to monogram two of your initials in goldwork cording.
The exhibition will run from 10 to 23 April at Burberry, Level 1, ION Orchard, 2 Orchard Turn, Singapore 238801